Plant Profile: Magic Magnolias

Magnolias are wonderful small trees or shrubs, which despite their southern connections, can work as spring-flowering plants for gardens in USDA Zone 4 — about the southern half of Minnesota, as well as areas along Lake Superior. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has a fine collection of magnolias and they are blooming right now.

magnolia1Magnolias for the north include hybrids of Magnolia stellata and Magnolia kobus as well as the native cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata). Most cultivars are small trees or shrubs, ranging from 10 to 25 feet tall with a vase-shaped form. The cucumber tree, however, grows up to 80 feet tall, and is grown primarily for its qualities as a sturdy landscape tree. (More varieties of hardy magnolias are being developed, too. Northern Gardener covered the work of Green Bay-based breeder Dennis Ledvina in our March/April 2013 issue.)

magnolia bloomMagnolias bloom in early spring, generally from late April through mid May in the Twin Cities. The flowers appear before the leaves on the plant, and the plant can be covered with blooms in shade of cream, pink or yellow. Magnolias are natives of forest clearings, so they can handle light or dappled shade but they bloom best in full sun. They need moisture (but not too much) and prefer a slightly acidic soil. Many people plant their magnolias near the house to protect them from the wind. Avoid the south side, however, as you do not want the plant to come into bloom too early. The magnolia root system is fibrous and shallow, so dig a wide hole when planting magnolias and spread them out. A yearly application of a balanced fertilizer or mulching with compost will help feed the plant. Magnolias look stunning surrounded by early spring bulbs, such as squill, and they do well with a shallow-rooted groundcover for a neighbor.

Here are some of the best varieties for Minnesota:

‘Royal Star’ Bright white blooms, fragrant, this plant grows only 15 feet tall at the most and blooms early in the season.

‘Ann’ For a cloud of pretty pink blooms, plant ‘Ann’. This one will grow to 30 feet tall. It can be prone to scale and other pests or diseases.

‘Jane’ With pinkish purple blooms, this later blooming variety should not be planted too close to the house.

‘Leonard Messel’ With narrow star-shaped petals that are white on one side and pink on the other, ‘Leonard Messel’ is a popular magnolia in Minnesota. Some sources rate it as zone 5, so choose a protected location.

‘Merrill’  Another magnolia with cream-colored blooms, ‘Merrill’ is known for its hardiness. A good choice for Minnesota.

Do you have magnolias in your yard?




  1. Debra McKenzie on March 19, 2017 at 10:48 pm

    I am desperately looking for a nursery that sells magnolias that grow in zone 4. Please advise if you have a contact that would carry them.

    • Mary Lahr Schier on March 20, 2017 at 11:52 am

      Where do you live? In the Twin Cities, Bachman’s sells them, and I think many of the nicer independent garden centers. Outside of the Twin Cities, there are several regional garden centers that carry them.

  2. Annemieke van der Werff on April 29, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    Also, Sargent’s in Rochester, their bigger location, has a beautiful selection.

  3. Terri Nelson on June 21, 2018 at 12:03 am

    I live near the Mn/WI border and in my experience if you keep your eyes open you may find someone local who’s a reputable grower as well who sells consistently year after year…. Keep your eyes open for those little signs that say “plant sale” as your passing through those little towns on the way up north to the cabin or what not, cuz 9 times outta 10 those people tend to have what your looking for and more for far cheaper even! Every year! Good Luck!

    • Mary Lahr Schier on June 21, 2018 at 1:31 am

      That is so true! We love all our local growers.

  4. Lori H on December 11, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    We planted a magnolia tree/bush this spring, either a Royal Star or Merrill. Seems to be thriving.
    It is covered with pinkish large buds as of Nov-Dec. Should we do anything to protect the tree/bush? Does it need to be wrapped in burlap?

  5. Shannon Thomasser on June 18, 2019 at 5:36 pm

    Hello! Are there yellow magnolias that can grow in Minnesota? Thanks!

    • Mary Lahr Schier on June 20, 2019 at 2:09 pm

      There is a magnolia called ‘Elizabeth’ that has a creamy yellow flower. I’m not sure how available it is, but some nurseries list it on their websites.

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